Technology cannot change culture-a lesson we still haven't learned.
"Intelligence reporting continues to be voluminous regarding plans of various groups to use terrorist tactics. . . . It is difficult to state the magnitude of the intelligence problem in a milieu where high casualty terrorist acts are relatively easy to perpetrate yet hard to stop. [They] . . . require little in the way of material resources or manpower, making them particularly difficult to intercept in the planning stage."
One could be forgiven for assuming that this succinct description of the big challenge that terrorism analysts face comes from any number of post-Sept. 11 reviews. But it was written nearly 25 years ago in the Defense Department Commission Report on the Beirut International Airport Terrorist Attack of Oct. 23, 1983.
Early that morning, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the lobby of a four-story concrete building that housed hundreds of sleeping Marines, who were in Beirut as part of a multinational peacekeeping force during the Lebanese civil war. The blast, which the FBI determined was the largest single explosion ever directed at U.S. forces, destroyed the building and killed 241 Marines.
The Defense commission, which studied events preceding the attack, revealed systemic barriers within the military chain of command to timely intelligence-gathering about the terrorist threats. There were more than 100 warnings of car bombings in Lebanon between May and Oct. 23, the commission found. But many of these threats never materialized, and none of this information was cross-referenced or otherwise studied in light of what kinds of attacks could occur.
"Seldom did the United States have a mechanism at its disposal which would allow a follow-up on these leads and a further refinement of the information into intelligence," the commission declared. It said, "the intelligence structure should be reviewed from both a design and capabilities standpoint" and suggested "the secretary of Defense establish an all-source fusion center, which would tailor and focus" intelligence for operations during times of high threat or crisis.
This is more or less what the 9/11 commission recommended. That body's insistence that the intelligence community make information sharing a top counter-terrorism activity led to the creation of a new office under the Director of National Intelligence and, indirectly, the proliferation of dozens of fusion centers at the state and local levels. With respect to the admirable gains the intelligence community has made, why is it that 25 years later, agencies still are grappling with a way to fuse intelligence and predict devastating attacks? Maybe it's because there has been too much focus on technology and not enough on culture, that ephemeral concoction of policies, processes and, most important, people.
The intelligence problem then had a lot more to do with culture than it did with technology. The Beirut commission's report shows that the intelligence failure stemmed largely from military commanders' reluctance to deploy the Marines outside the airport, so they could move around the city and understand their environment. Add to this a general lack of appreciation among senior officials in Washington for just how dangerous, and ambitious, terrorists in Lebanon actually were.
Lack of intelligence fusion wasn't the issue. The mission in Lebanon had no intelligence culture. That's worth remembering as the intelligence community addresses its own culture and suggests technology as the means to change it. Not to dismiss fusion and the need to share intelligence, but to labor more over technological problems than human ones ensures that 25 years from now, things will not have changed that much.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.